Paperless billing sounds like such a good idea, doesn't it? For each vendor that offers it (some use the term "eBills"), all you have to do is sign up for a free account on their web site, and agree to receive your bills online and stop getting paper bills through U.S. Mail.
Here are the benefits of paperless billing that the vendors claim you'll enjoy, collected over the past few months from a variety of companies:
- It's convenient.
- It's safer. You'll reduce your risk of mail fraud and identity theft.
- It's "green," i.e., good for the environment, saving paper, ink, and postage, which in turn reduces waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
- You can view, download, and print your current and previous bills from any computer, any time, going back anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the vendor.
- It's simpler.
- It's more flexible.
- It's easy to switch.
- It's easy to use.
- It reduces clutter.
- It's free.
- And, my personal favorite: You'll enjoy more freedom and peace of mind.
Here's the catch:
- They send you an email to tell you that your bill is coming due.
That's what makes them "paperless." The company notifies you by email when your bill is ready to be paid, typically each month, directing you to their web site to view your bill. You can then pay it however you like, including mailing a check or paying it online.
In my opinion this is a clever but very flawed idea. Email is inherently unreliable! Email messages don't arrive for many reasons, including human error, computer glitches, and spam filtering. Server and internet problems can also delay email delivery for days or prevent it entirely. And, what if you change email accounts and don't update every vendor sending you paperless bills? Those email bill notifications would become permanently undeliverable. However, when an email message fails to arrive, only a small percentage of the time does a failure message get sent back to the sender, so it's unlikely that those companies would be able to tell that you hadn't received their bill, regardless of the reason.
Are the benefits of paperless bills worth the risk of missing a bill (or multiple bills) and incurring late fees, penalties, or worse?
In all the material I've read about paperless billing from many different companies, nowhere
have I seen any information on what happens if you don't pay actually pay your bill. Will those companies simply continue to email their bills to you (possibly in vain), or will they send you something in writing? If they do eventually "fall back" to U.S. Mail, how long does that take? Certainly, bills sent via U.S. Mail sometimes don't arrive as well, but email has more complicated and unpredictable obstacles than rain or snow or dark of night.
On the other hand, you could go to each company's web site and view your bill, but that entirely eliminates the convenience factor. It's also difficult to be that proactive every month, especially if you don't keep track of which day each month your credit cards, phone bill, etc. come due.
Similarly, many banks and investment firms offer paperless statements. When you agree to receive your statements online and stop getting paper statements through U.S. Mail, in addition to the benefits listed above they claim you'll also get your statements and investment reports faster. Since this also relies on email delivery, it has the same basic benefits and risks as paperless billing. However, if a statement notification email doesn't arrive, you'll miss out on seeing your account activity in a timely fashion, but there are no direct penalties as with bills. On the other hand, not seeing your statement may cause other indirect problems, including not spotting mistakes or fraudulent items, not knowing your balance, etc.
Don't confuse paperless billing with automatic payment. This is an option many companies offer where you can authorize, for example, your phone company to "come and get" the amount that you owe directly from your bank account each month when your bill comes due. Unlike paperless billing, this doesn't
rely on your receiving an email and then taking action, but it also isn't necessarily better than regular payment methods, especially if cash flow is an issue for you, since you can't control when the payment occurs.
Where to go from here
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